How “Safeguarding” Can Address Student Well-Being and Help Prevent Harm

How “Safeguarding” Can Address Student Well-Being and Help Prevent Harm

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic changed our lives overnight.

Across the nation, schools and districts worked hand-in-hand to create bookmobiles, buses with Wi-Fi hotspots and other remote learning options to ensure learning continued—despite classes taking place in kitchens, dining rooms and living rooms. Students gathered on Zoom for classes, and educators adapted and adjusted their lessons. However, despite the incredible efforts, research shows the pandemic widened achievement gaps. In addition to impacting students’ academic growth, the pandemic also took a significant toll on students’ well-being by increasing their stress and affecting their mental health.

Students spent months isolated from friends and grew anxious over ever-changing mask mandates; their grades; and the health of their friends, families and others. Students witnessed their parents lose their jobs and struggle to make ends meet, and some even saw their loved ones lose their lives to COVID-19. That’s an immense amount of trauma to experience in a short amount of time. Now, we’re seeing the results of that prolonged trauma as students return to classrooms for in-person learning.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns of an accelerating mental health crisis among adolescents. Just in March, the CDC shared new student data, illuminating the mental health threats that students face. According to the latest data, 37 percent of high-school students—more than one-third—reported they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44 percent of high-school students reported they felt persistently sad or hopeless during the past year.

Those numbers are concerning, especially when looking at students’ mental health and well-being over time. Even before the pandemic, the CDC recognized students’ mental health as a severe and growing problem. Between 2009 and 2019, persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40 percent in high-school students alone. The pandemic increased those feelings of sadness and hopelessness, with students struggling more than in previous years.

Right now, schools and districts must recognize their students' non-academic needs as important issues and provide the support and structure needed to help students succeed. Safeguarding can help schools and districts systematically address these challenges.

What is Safeguarding?
The practice of Safeguarding was established in the U.K. after the tragic death of a young elementary student due to neglect. Following that event in 2012, Safeguarding was implemented in all K–12 settings in England, allowing schools to proactively engage, manage and address the many challenges, crises and traumas that students face.

Schools have a basic responsibility to protect students from harm. Whether it’s bullying, sexual harassment or abuse, racism, hunger, an unstable home life, threats to safety both in and out of school, lack of access to technology or other obstacles, Safeguarding addresses non-academic barriers to learning. Safeguarding means protecting students from harm, addressing vulnerabilities and proactively managing students’ non-academic needs. Safeguarding ensures students’ mental health and well-being are supported.

However, Safeguarding can be time-consuming when schools and districts don’t have the right tools and processes in place. Too often, schools and districts address students’ non-academic needs only when they reach a crisis level. Whether in a notebook or on a spreadsheet, most educators don’t have the infrastructure to track and manage the variety of non-academic needs students bring to class.

As a practice, Safeguarding equips educators and the adults responsible for students’ welfare with the tools and expertise they need to manage the diverse obstacles and traumas a child might face—ensuring concerns are addressed and students’ well-being is top of mind.

How Can Schools and Districts Implement Safeguarding Practices?
The U.S. Department of Education’s 2021–2022 Return to School Roadmap emphasizes physical, social and emotional health as higher priorities than a focus on academic progress right now, but most schools and districts don’t have the funds to hire additional support or help to address these issues. Often, social welfare concerns are managed for compliance by one department while other non-academic student needs are addressed ad hoc by educators, administrators and the central office. This leads to inefficient and often insufficient support.

Successful Safeguarding is a combination of people, systems, processes and leadership in place that enables schools and districts to both understand the concerns and risks students face, along with the tools to proactively mitigate the challenges that schools have.

With the tools and practice of Safeguarding, educators are encouraged to report all the concerns they witness without having to decide whether it is serious enough to need to be addressed. Record keeping is a critical part of the Safeguarding process. Through detailed records, other educators have background information on students, which makes it easier to keep up-to-date specific students’ behaviors that might need to be addressed with the support of other educators, administrators and families.

With a designated Safeguarding Lead at each school empowered to review and manage submitted concerns, educators and non-certified staff are no longer pressured to make on-the-spot judgment calls.

These best practices take some of the pressure off educators and provide a clear sense of roles and when to address potential issues.

How Do Educators Monitor their Students’ Mental Health and Well-Being?
Schools and districts must take a proactive approach to monitor students’ mental health and well-being. This requires making the most of data and involving local communities. Educators need to meet with their colleagues on a regular basis to discuss trends and concerns that stem from students’ data. As a practice, Safeguarding helps schools and districts monitor and address concerns around students’ mental health and well-being, but connecting with others helps educators identify where additional support is needed. When successful, Safeguarding is a true team effort.

Involving local communities and families is important to Safeguarding, as well. Schools and districts need to work with families to provide local resources, connect on questions or concerns and keep in touch with families. While students spend a significant chunk of their time at school, there’s also a lot of time spent at home. Local outreach and working together with local communities and families create a web of support—at school and home.

Just like a good school improvement plan uses data as the basis for strategic academic growth, successful implementation of Safeguarding begins with identifying the core needs and concerns students currently face while strategically organizing to address those needs. Safeguarding works best as a comprehensive, integrated system based on sound principles that put students at the center, not a collection of independent activities in separate silos. Through understanding Safeguarding, implementing best practices and working with local communities and families, schools and districts can monitor and address students’ well-being and mental health needs—setting students up for non-academic and academic success.

This article originally appeared in the May / June 2022 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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